honest abe is a babe: maira kalman looks at lincoln

“History makes you hungry.” ~ Maira Kalman

In her brilliant 2009 New York Times illustrated essay, the inimitable, unfailingly hungry Maira Kalman, who looks like this,

Self portrait by Maira Kalman via WMagazine

tells about how she looked deep into Abe Lincoln’s eyes and fell head over heels.

Her witty, incisive, endearing paean to our 16th President, truly a love letter to top all love letters, made me fall even more head over heels — not only for Lincoln but for Maira.

I couldn’t stop looking at it.

After all, it included Mary Todd Lincoln’s famous White Cake, Lincoln’s favorite apples, “ornamental pyramids of nougat and caramel with fancy cream candy,” veal Malakoff, visits to the Lincoln Diner and Baked Potato King, as well as other “fancy small cakes.”

I want to be Maira when I grow up.

I was beside myself when this book came out in 2010:

It contains all 12 of her NY Times essays in the, “And the Pursuit of Happiness” blog series. Jazzed by the wave of renewed hope and optimism following the 2008 Presidential election, she set out on a tour across America to find out how democracy works, visiting government buildings, monuments and historic sites. She served up the story of our Founding Fathers in her trademark idiosyncratic style, getting right to the heart of who we are as Americans, or at least, whom we aspire to be in a perfect world where we never lose touch with our essential humanity. And there was even macaroni and cheese, cornbread, Grand Marnier Cake, barbecue chicken, North Carolina peanuts, cookies from Pakistan, and cherry pie.

I bought at least 10 copies that year to give as Christmas presents.

And now, *hyperventilating* — Maira’s Lincoln essay has been recast into this picture book!

It contains some of the same paintings from her NY Times essay, and some new ones. There’s a young girl narrating the story, who sees a tall man in the park who reminds her of Lincoln, prompting her to go to the library to learn more about him.

Naturally, she becomes enthralled with Lincoln’s unusual face: “I could look at him forever.”

She tells us all about his boyhood in Kentucky as a self-taught, avid reader and dreamer, how he became interested in government and becoming President, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, leading the country through the Civil War, delivering his famous Gettysburg Address, and finally his assassination at Ford’s Theatre.

In one fell swoop, Maira captures the monumental greatness of the man, not forgetting the quirky details that make him wonderfully human and ever more accessible to the reader:

What did he love?

He loved his dog Fido.
I think Fido was cross-eyed.

He loved apples.
Cox’s orange pippins.
White pippins.

He always had an apple on his desk.


She tells about Lincoln’s family — four rambunctious sons and his very short wife, Mary. My favorite part:

I wonder if Mary and Abraham
had nicknames for each other.
Did she call him Linky?
Did he call her Little Plumpy?

Similar to her essay, but perfectly tuned for young readers with its subtext of hope: “But a great man is never really gone. Abraham Lincoln will live forever.” A shock of pink cherry blossoms seals the deal.

“He was thinking about freedom and doing good for mankind.”

Through Maira’s eyes, history is fresh, exciting, spontaneous, alive. Only she can juxtapose war and assassination with pancakes and mules, engendering pride in one’s country and unabashed enthusiasm for Honest Abe.

If you didn’t love him before, you’ll love him after reading this book. If you loved him before, you’ll love him even more.

I just can’t stop looking at Maira looking at Lincoln!

from “In Love with A. Lincoln” (NY Times, 2-26-09)

written and illustrated by Maira Kalman
published by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Group USA, 2012
Picture Book Biography for ages 5+, 32 pp.
On shelves now!

Click here to listen to Maira introduce the book and read an excerpt from it at TeachingBooks.net. Her official website is here.

Click here for a short interview with Maira at School Library Journal.

Related post: Poetry Friday featuring a Lincoln poem by Berton Bellis.

♥ If you’re exceptionally short and slightly plump and wish to bake the famous Vanilla Almond Cake that Mary Todd used to seduce Honest Abe, click here. Even if you’re not, you’ll probably like this cake as much as I did. You mustn’t mind being pursued by bearded suitors wearing tall hats.



*Spreads from “In Love with A. Lincoln” and Looking at Lincoln, copyright © 2009 and © 2012 Maira Kalman. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.




26 thoughts on “honest abe is a babe: maira kalman looks at lincoln

  1. First, thank you for your Sunday bear wish. Hope you get lots of hugs & sweets too, Jama! And, this book is so lovely. You are right that we just want to look and look. Thank you for a beautiful birthday tribute.


    1. I just can’t get enough of Maira! I want to own all her books. Some of her older titles are hard to find, very expensive on the secondary market.

      Have a wonderful Valentine’s week, Linda. Extra ((hugs)) to you and yours. 🙂


  2. This post made me smile so much, it’s clear I need to get this book and smile some more. With or without cake. It’s nice to see someone honored with humor, and not just humor to bear the grim.


  3. Oh wow, I agree with those eyes. There is something about them, yes? I have heard of Maira Kalman’s book when I attended the NAGC conference last year, so I should definitely look this up. Speaking of eyes, I have been riveted by Jim Caviezel’s gray eyes in Person of Interest. Couldn’t stop watching the series either. I thought of sharing this with you, seeing you have an Eye Candy section here (a woman after my own heart). 🙂


  4. Oh I love Kalman…I own everything she’s ever done, and feast my eyes on her work when I feel blue. I love the way she captured Lincoln – she “got” those eyes! I had blogged about this some time ago, and was so happy to see it here today!


Comments are closed.